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THEY CAME to Washington to grow grapes and make wine. Some were recruited; others arrived in America’s new wine frontier seeking opportunity. They form a special union, a shared experience, thanks to the Northwest’s largest wine producer.

They are graduates of the University of Ste. Michelle.

When Chateau Ste. Michelle got serious in the 1970s and ’80s about making high-quality wines, it looked outside Washington to find the talent it needed. Those early decisions to import top winemakers and growers to the Northwest and away from California — and many decisions since — have been a crucial factor in propelling the Washington wine industry to prosperity and prominence.

Had Ste. Michelle not brought in world-class talent from beyond its borders, it’s difficult to realize what the Washington wine industry might look like. But there is no doubt it would not be nearly as developed, highly respected or on an incredibly bold growth track.

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While Ste. Michelle’s turnover rate has been remarkably low, many of Washington’s top wine talents have moved on to start their own operations or work for others. Names such as Kay Simon and Clay Mackey (Chinook Wines), Charlie Hoppes (Fidelitas Wines), Bob Betz (Betz Family Winery), Mike Januik (Novelty Hill and Januik wineries) and Wade Wolfe (Thurston Wolfe Winery) are luminaries in Washington. Had it not been for Ste. Michelle, they might never have gotten that chance.

Allen Shoup, who led Ste. Michelle for 20 years, says the company recruited from California and beyond because it didn’t have a choice.

Shoup, who retired in 2000 and later launched highly regarded Long Shadows Vintners in Walla Walla, says the wineries they were building were “way too big to give to someone who didn’t have any viticulture or enology background.”

Even Washington’s great winemakers back then were self-taught, he says.

“It’s one thing to work with 10 barrels. It’s another to work with 10,000.”

In the mid-1970s, Bob Betz was running a wine shop. He and his wife, Cathy, had spent a year exploring the great wine regions of Europe, and he decided to eschew medical school in favor of a career in wine.

In January 1976, he took a job with Ste. Michelle. This was a few months before construction was completed at the Woodinville château, and the winery was on East Marginal Way in Seattle. After the French-style manor opened on the east side of Lake Washington, Betz was running the tasting room.

One day in 1977, in walked Kay Simon, a University of California-Davis grad who was making large amounts of wine in California’s San Joaquin Valley. She was in Seattle for her brother’s graduation from the University of Puget Sound. A friend had given her bottles of Ste. Michelle riesling, so she thought she might take a tour of the winery. Simon figured it would be some small, out-of-the-way operation.

“They had just built the château,” she remembers. “I was expecting something totally different.”

During the tour, she met head winemaker Joel Klein. It didn’t take long before she was hired as assistant winemaker in Woodinville, then red winemaker at Ste. Michelle’s winery in the Yakima Valley town of Grandview, and finally head winemaker for a new facility in Paterson called Chateau Ste. Michelle River Ridge — soon to be re-christened Columbia Crest.

During Simon’s tenure at Ste. Michelle — which ended in 1984 — she met Clay Mackey, a viticulturist who was working in Napa Valley but sought something different. He gazed north and recognized Washington as a possibility. He arrived in the fall of 1979 and stayed with the company for three years.

The two became friends and ultimately started dating. In 1983, they launched Chinook Wines in Prosser. The following August, they released their first wine in Seattle, then two days later were married on Bainbridge Island.

Today, Ste. Michelle spills more wine than Simon and Mackey craft — 3,000 cases annually. They are the winery’s only full-time employees, and that’s just fine with them because they live an idyllic life in the small Yakima Valley farming community of Prosser. And each day, they are grateful for the good fortune Ste. Michelle provided.

“It was an opportunity to become familiar with the place where ultimately I am ending up spending the rest of my life,” Mackey says.

His wife agrees and fondly recalls the days when everyone who was part of the Washington wine scene could fit into their backyard.

Back then was a different time, she says. “You knew everybody. It was more intimate. We recognized we were on the edge of a wave. We were a young group — we were in our 20s — and it was very exciting.”

With such a small industry, everyone knew they were in it together, so they shared knowledge, equipment and sweat. When one person’s tractor broke, someone else jumped in. They all tasted each other’s wines, they knew each other’s children, and they enjoyed a camaraderie that simply cannot exist anymore because of the Washington wine industry’s sheer size.

WHEN IT ALL began, Wade Wolfe was part of that young, energized group. He earned his bachelor’s and doctorate degrees at UC-Davis, then worked briefly at the University of Arizona on a viticultural project before Ste. Michelle lured him to Washington in 1978 to work as a viticulturist.

Wolfe spent seven years with Ste. Michelle in many capacities on the grape-growing side of the business. These were tumultuous times, as Wolfe, Ste. Michelle and the rest of the burgeoning industry were tested by two terrible winters — 1978-’79 and 1983-’84 — when plunging temperatures devastated vineyards.

“That was my exposure to the biggest climactic challenge in the state,” he recalls.

One of the major challenges in Washington is the occasional bad winter. Every five to seven years, a deep winter freeze will cause widespread damage. In recent times, these events have happened in 1992, 1996, 2004 and 2010. To combat, or rather accommodate, these bad winters, grape growers have learned where to plant vines, what varieties to avoid and what to do to mitigate the resulting damage when it does occur through irrigation and other viticultural practices.

In the late 1970s, Wolfe hired Stan Clarke, a move that would change his life. Though Clarke left Ste. Michelle in 1981 to forge his own path as a winemaker, grape grower, wine writer and educator, the two became close. Later, Clarke would help launch Quail Run Winery (which became Covey Run) and hire a young woman named Rebecca Yeaman to run the tasting room. Clarke introduced her to Wolfe, and the two began dating, ultimately married and launched Thurston Wolfe Winery in Prosser. Wolfe and Clarke remained best friends until Clarke’s death in 2007.

Also in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Wolfe had the chance to work side-by-side with Walter Clore, the man most responsible for shaping Washington wine into what it is today. At the behest of Shoup, then Ste. Michelle CEO, the two researched, wrote and submitted a proposal to the federal government to create the Columbia Valley American Viticultural Area, an 11 million-acre swath of land that takes up nearly a third of the state and continues to define Washington’s primary grape-growing areas.

When Wolfe moved on to launch his own winery in 1987 and later run Hogue Cellars, the lessons he learned at the University of Ste. Michelle served him well. He learned about the best places to grow grapes, the importance of irrigation and how to work with growers. That helped him grow Hogue from a 125,000-case winery in 1990 to a half-million cases by the time he left in the mid-2000s.

Whether he’s walking through vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills or tasting from barrels in his Prosser winery, Wolfe often thinks back to those days with Ste. Michelle. And even though he is much more knowledgeable about winemaking and viticulture, those early experiences continue to guide him. Just as importantly, the friendships he made at Ste. Michelle remain. Now that Wolfe is seen as one of the industry’s elder statesmen, he calls upon those friendships for grape sources or even just to bounce off ideas.

THOUGH CHARLIE Hoppes grew up in the Yakima Valley, he was far from being a homegrown winemaker for Ste. Michelle. After graduating from Eastern Washington University, Hoppes caught the wine bug and headed south for the only viable educational option at that time: UC-Davis.

After earning a bachelor’s degree, he returned to Washington in 1988 to work for Mike Januik at Snoqualmie Winery (before it was bought by Ste. Michelle). After a brief stint in Walla Walla, he rejoined Januik, this time as assistant winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle.

Over the next decade, Januik and Hoppes oversaw the construction of a red-winemaking complex on Canoe Ridge in the Horse Heaven Hills.

Both Januik and Hoppes left Ste. Michelle in 1999 — Januik to launch his eponymous winery in Woodinville and Hoppes to help start Three Rivers Winery in Walla Walla while also creating his own Fidelitas Wines.

For Hoppes, his Ste. Michelle education led to later successes.

“When you’re at a place like Chateau Ste. Michelle for 10 years, you see so many things,” he says. “If I had been at a small winery all that time, I wouldn’t have experienced as much. It’s almost like you can pack a whole career into a 10-year period in a place like that.”

While employed by Ste. Michelle, Hoppes spent a decade prowling the vineyards of Eastern Washington, experiences that he says led to his success.

When he launched Fidelitas, he turned to many of those grape growers, knowing from his Ste. Michelle days that the fruit they nurtured could produce some of the world’s greatest wine.

AS WASHINGTON’S wine industry has matured in the past 15 years, its need to go to California and beyond for talent has diminished.

Damon LaLonde, 39, grew up in Kennewick and in 1999 went to Walla Walla Community College, earning a degree in irrigation technology. In 2001, he went to Ste. Michelle as a viticulturist. He worked in the Horse Heaven Hills and Wahluke Slope, among other areas, but his main focus was the Yakima Valley — the cradle of Washington’s wine industry.

In 2007, LaLonde left Ste. Michelle to work for Vinagium, a company with two vineyards on Red Mountain. He’s also the vineyard manager and a partner in French Creek Vineyard near Prosser. His knowledge of Red Mountain and the Yakima Valley during his time at Ste. Michelle led to these opportunities.

He cherishes that time so much, he says, “I wouldn’t even think twice about going back there.”

During his tenure, LaLonde learned how decisions in the vineyard affected what ended up in the bottle. He could taste wines he played a role in producing.

“Having those tastings, you got to monitor and grade yourself on what was going on in the vineyard.”

ALLEN SHOUP’S experience with the company — and his moves since leaving in 2000 — are unlike any other. He was hired in 1980 by Wally Opdyke, who owned the company before selling it to U.S. Tobacco in the early 1970s and continuing to run it.

Shoup’s position allowed him to rub shoulders and become friends with the giants of the wine industry, particularly people such as Robert Mondavi of Napa Valley fame and Piero Antinori of Italy. Shoup was particularly enamored of Mondavi’s collaboration with Bordeaux’s Chateau Mouton-Rothschild that became Opus One, a jointly owned winery in Napa Valley.

“From the very beginning, I wanted to do something comparable,” he says.

As Ste. Michelle CEO, Shoup connected with Antinori, and they created Col Solare, a highly successful winery on Red Mountain. Shoup later did something similar with Germany’s Ernst Loosen, which became Eroica — a project that reinvigorated the American riesling industry.

When Shoup retired from Ste. Michelle, he was far from finished. In fact, he was only a little older than Mondavi had been when he started Robert Mondavi Winery in the 1960s.

So Shoup took the Col Solare/Eroica model and invented Long Shadows Vintners in Walla Walla. It is a collaboration of top winemakers from around the globe, each of whom owns a piece of their respective labels and crafts some of the best wines in America. The winemakers include such big names as Randy Dunn (Napa Valley), Armin Diel (Germany), John Duval (Australia) and Michel Rolland (Bordeaux).

The project has increased the intensity of the spotlight on Washington, exactly the effect Shoup sought. From the wines to the Chihuly glass in the tasting room, everything at Long Shadows is just right.

“Quality alone isn’t enough,” Shoup says. “This business is so competitive. If you want to do it, you have zero margin for error.”

And what happened to Betz, that guy running the Ste. Michelle tasting room back in 1977? He worked in nearly every division of the company, earned the rare and distinguished Master of Wine degree and enjoyed an illustrious 28-year career with the company.

In 1997, he and his wife launched Betz Family Winery in Woodinville, crafting on a tiny level what Ste. Michelle produced on a giant scale. By 2003, he decided to retire from Ste. Michelle and focus all of his effort on building Betz into one of the state’s most-beloved brands and bona fide cult wineries.

All because of his time at the University of Ste. Michelle.

Andy Perdue is a wine author, journalist and international judge. Learn more about wine at John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer.